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A Dry White Season

A Dry White Season

by André Brink


A novel set in Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa, in the late 1970s; published in Afrikaans (as ’n Droe wit seisoen) in 1979, in English in 1979.


The novel traces the last year in the life of Ben Du Toit, an Afrikaner schoolteacher who trusts fully in the state until a black friend dies in prison under suspicious circumstances.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in Vrede, South Africa, in 1935, André Brink was one of the first Afrikaner writers to produce anti-apartheid, politically charged literature in South Africa. (Afrikaner—the former term was Boer—refers to whites who descend mainly from the early Dutch but also from the early German and French settlers in the region.) Brink has since become a writer of international renown, publishing regularly in both Afrikaans and English. In the 1950s he earned masters of arts degrees in both English and Afrikaans literature, and then, from 1959 until 1961, engaged in postgraduate study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Brink later became part of the experimental Afrikaner “Sestiger” movement (“Writers of the Sixties”), and in 1968 planned to settle in Paris along with the exiled poet and fellow Sestiger writer, Breyten Breytenbach. However, the Parisian student revolt that year inspired Brink to return to South Africa to “accept full responsibility” for whatever he wrote (Brink in Ross, p. 55). Brink’s initial novel to emerge from this new commitment, Kennis van die aand (1973), became the first Afrikaans book to be banned by South African censors. His own English translation of this novel, Looking on Darkness, was published the following year, and became successful internationally. Since then Brink has written regularly in both Afrikaans and English—often composing each novel twice to make it available in both languages. Written in the wake of the 1976 Soweto Revolt, A Dry White Season helped increase anti-apartheid sentiment throughout the world. With this novel, said Brink, “I have tried to accept that responsibility one owes to one’s society and one’s time” (Brink in Jolly, p. 18).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel


Like many other South African novels of the 1970s and 1980s, A Dry White Season is set against the backdrop of apartheid, or the system of legalized racial segregation enforced in South Africa from 1948 until 1990. The system rested on the Afrikaner notion that society in South Africa consisted not of one but of various nations that ought to live in their own distinct homelands or reserves; those from black homelands should, according to this system, be allowed to enter the white homeland only temporarily as workers. In fact, South Africa had a long history of segregationist and racist policies before the 1948 victory of the Nationalist Party, which would institute many of the policies of apartheid. The 1948 election was, in fact, a victory for the Afrikaner nationalists who had themselves been oppressed and condescended to by South Africa’s British population. The Boer War (1899 to 1902) had essentially been an attempt on the Afrikaners’ part to preserve the independence of their settler states in the face of the British desire for complete dominance in South Africa; after the Afrikaners’ crushing loss in this war, a fierce and zealous nationalist movement arose that tried to maintain an Afrikaner identity and culture in the British-dominated colony.


African 20.8 (72 percent)
Coloured 2.6 (9 percent)
Indian 0.8 (3 percent)
White* 4.5 (16 percent)

* Of the white population, approximately 60 percent were Afrikaner.

(Adapted from Thompson, p. 243)

Though the two groups merged in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa, the Afrikaners always played a subordinate role to the British. While the two groups together created an entire system of power based on the oppression and exclusion of blacks (including Africans, Indians, and “Coloureds,” or people of mixed racial descent), the Afrikaner nationalist movement created an entire ideology around the idea that the Afrikaners were a “chosen people” favored by God and destined to rule South Africa. Furthermore, as the country became more urbanized and industrialized and as many poor Afrikaners were forced into competition for jobs with black workers, fear of the “black peril”—the idea that Afrikaners were in danger of being overwhelmed by the black majority—added momentum to the nationalist movement already focused on ethnic separation. When the British-led government brought South Africa into World War II—Britain’s war, as many Afrikaners saw it—strident Afrikaners lost patience and finally voted the fascist-influenced National Party into power in 1948.

Almost immediately after assuming power the Nationalists began constructing “an apparatus of laws, regulations and bureaucracies” that would develop into “the most elaborate racial edifice the world had ever witnessed” (Meredith, p. 54). Inter-racial marriages and sexual relationships were banned; different racial groups were compelled by law to use separate restaurants, post offices, theaters, buses, and so on, or to use separate entrances and seats in public buildings; as residential areas for each racial group were demarcated, whole communities were uprooted. Though apartheid rhetoric had spoken of separation but equality, the areas demarcated for non-white South Africans represented only a small percentage of the country’s total land mass; as a result, many nonwhite people were left no alternative but to build makeshift shantytowns on the outskirts of white-populated cities. Such overwhelming inequality characterized apartheid legislation. Between 1948 and 1971, 151 racial laws were enacted, affecting every aspect of daily life—three times the number of racial laws enacted in the four decades preceding the National Party’s reign.

South Africa in the 1970s

While the initial impetus behind apartheid was a desire to maintain Afrikaner culture and restore Afrikaner glory, by the 1970s it was clear that Afrikaners no longer had to fight for power and recognition. Once composed mainly of poor rural farmers, the now predominantly white-collar Afrikaner population had become urbanized and had taken over the economic lead formerly enjoyed by the British. And, now that the Afrikaners controlled the economy, apartheid came under critique as an impractical economic policy that left the labor force mostly unskilled. With the expansion of industry and the demand for skilled labor outweighing the supply, some Afrikaners began to see that the regulations intended to keep nonwhites powerless were preventing national economic advancement. Indeed, South Africa had become a country with a “first-world infrastructure and a third-world labour force” (Le May, p. 241).

The 1970s also saw a major philosophical shift among the black population with the advent of the militant Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), whose spokesman and founder, Steven Biko, rejected white involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle and sought to empower blacks on their own terms. In the two previous decades African revolutionaries had been defiant but muted, and had usually worked alongside white liberals and communists. But, as Biko contended,

The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally. For a long time the black world has been looking only at the governing party and not so much at the whole power structure as the object of their rage.

(Biko in Meredith, p. 139)

Biko believed that blacks, accustomed to oppression and feelings of inferiority, could acquire strength only by distancing themselves from whites. BCM was to dominate black political activity throughout the 1970s. It found outlets in “poetry, literature, drama, music, theology and in local community projects promoting education, health and welfare” (Meredith, p. 140).

Police reaction to black dissent was harsh, once the power of the BCM was acknowledged. In March 1973 eight leaders of the movement, including Biko, were banned; the Minister of Justice, P. C. Pelser, claimed they had advocated “arson, rape and bloody revolution” (Pelser in Harsch, p. 271). Banning, for Biko, meant that he was “restricted to King William’s Town, forbidden to speak in public or to write for publication or to be quoted or to be present with more than one person at a time” (Meredith, p. 141). That year more than 100 other black militants were banned or placed under house arrest. In early 1974 O. R. Tiro, another BCM leader, was killed in his home by a bomb; the Bureau of State Security was believed to be behind the murder. As a result of a crackdown during this period, the official leadership of all major BCM groups was effectively wiped out. Determined and resilient, however, other leaders continued to work behind the scenes and new leaders emerged to fill in the gaps. Such commitment was reinforced not only by widespread militant sentiment—a general unwillingness to be cowed by an oppressive system—but also by news of the gains of various liberation movements throughout Africa. The victory of FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) in Mozambique, where white Portugese rule collapsed, was especially encouraging news to South African revolutionaries, and “Viva FRELIMO” rallies were held throughout the country. In South Africa, the police detained and arrested another 50 prominent BCM activists, most of whom were sentenced to five or six years in prison after an extended trial. The trial succeeded only in stimulating the BCM, whose leaders used it as a platform for revolutionary ideas, and regularly entered the courtroom singing freedom songs and shouting Amandla (Zulu for “power”).

This new, fierce energy on the part of black militants, as well as old resentments over low wages, police harassment, and, indeed, the entire system of racial subjugation effected by apartheid, would lead inevitably to the bloody, devastating 16 months of riots known as the Soweto Revolt.

Johannesburg and Soweto

A Dry White Season takes place mainly in Johannesburg, where the Afrikaner protagonist Ben du Toit lives, and Soweto, where all of the black characters live. Though it may seem surprising that du Toit could live for 50 years as a South African and have had so little direct experience with blacks that he would not be aware of the vast inequalities facing them, the fact is that nonwhite servants tended to the needs of Johannesburg whites and so entered their community, but no white people would ever visit Soweto. Soweto is an acronym for the southwestern townships (SOuth-WEstern TOwnships) of Johannesburg, where in 1984 more than 1.25 million nonwhite Africans lived. Their segregation into this area resulted, in part, from the 1950 Group Areas Act, which required nonwhites and whites to live in previously designated, racially zoned areas. Indeed, a white South African from Johannesburg may well have never even set foot in Soweto. A historian during the apartheid period noted:

Familiar social barriers to communication between upper and lower classes are reinforced in South Africa, both by racial distinctions and by regulations which discourage the entry of Whites into Black townships. Many leading local Whites who are familiar with London, Paris and New York have never set foot in Soweto.

(Mandy, p. xix)

Around the time of the novel, mine dumps and tall buildings made up the Johannesburg skyline, identifying the city as South Africa’s industrial center. Both to the east and the west of the mine dumps were many industrial townships and the homes of low-income whites. North of the mine dumps were the urban center and, further to the north, the rich white suburbs where a character like Ben du Toit would have lived. To the southwest of the mine dumps sat the “drab houses of sprawling Black Soweto and the segregated areas where the Coloureds and Indians [were] required to live” (Mandy, p. xv). Though Soweto was too large to be considered a town, it was “not yet a city because it lack[ed] cohesion and the normal range of urban anemities” (Mandy, p. 173). It had few paved roads at the time of the novel, and no pharmacies, bakeries, modern shopping centers, or office blocks. Some 75 percent of the groceries purchased by Sowe-tans were bought in Johannesburg. This arrangement forced Sowetans to remain dependent on the white sections of Johannesburg.

In the early 1970s conditions in the black townships deteriorated. In an attempt to relegate more blacks to their separate homelands, the government restricted urban development, which resulted in severe housing shortages. A survey of ten cities, accounting for half of South Africa’s urban black population, showed that from 1970 to 1975 the amount of housing had increased by only 15 percent when, in the same areas, the African population had grown by more than 50 percent. In 1970 an average of 13 people lived in each house; by 1975 the average rose to 17 (Meredith, p. 142). From a new system of township administration—in which local administration boards would no longer receive subsidies from, in Soweto’s case, Johannesburg—came harsh consequences in Soweto. Rents rose and services for roads, garbage removal, and sewer systems all declined. A 1976 survey showed that 43 percent of Soweto households were living under the poverty line (Meredith, p. 143).

The Soweto Revolt

The spark that set off the Soweto Revolt was the government’s decision to enforce an outdated and impractical 1958 law, which ruled that the Afrikaans language had to be used regularly by secondary school teachers. Despite the fact that many teachers did not even know Afrikaans—the amalgamation of Dutch and African languages used by the Afrikaners—in 1974 the government ordered that the language be used for all practical subjects and for all courses in the general sciences. Parents, teachers, school boards, and administrators protested throughout the country to no avail. In Soweto black students began boycotting classes taught in Afrikaans, which they saw as the language of the oppressor. On June 16, 1976, a large group of students marched through Soweto singing freedom songs and chanting slogans. The students gathered peacefully in front of the Orlando West junior secondary school to protest, and planned to continue the march from there.

The police arrived, and a white policeman threw a tear-gas canister into the crowd. Another white policemen opened fire into the crowd, killing a 13-year-old black boy, Hector Peterson. The students fought back with bricks and stones, and when news of Hector Peterson’s death spread, students rioted, attacking government buildings and turning over and burning cars and buses. The riots lasted for days, with riot police driving through the streets of Soweto in armored convoys, firing into the crowds. “Instructions have been given to maintain law and order at all costs,” said Prime Minister B. J. Vorster two days after the revolt began (Vorster in Cawthra, p. 19). According to the government, the death toll after the first ten days was 176, with 1,000 wounded; black organizations claimed the figures were much higher.

The government’s July 1st withdrawal of the Afrikaans ruling was not enough, by this point, to placate those suffering under apartheid. All over the country students called for the toppling of the entire oppressive education system—or even, in some cases, for the overthrow of the government itself. Black workers and parents joined the protests, and a series of strikes, marches, and battles ensued. Hundreds of activists were arrested and detained, and many died in police custody. By September 1977 the violence had lessened; many black workers no longer participated in strikes, which they came to see as useless, and students focused their attention on school boycotts. Some 600 teachers had resigned, and 250,000 students were on strike.

Then on September 12 news came of Steven Biko’s death in detention. Police claims that Biko had died from a self-imposed hunger strike were patently ridiculous. Though suspicious deaths in detention were by no means uncommon, Biko’s international fame and importance drew worldwide attention to the travesties of justice in South Africa. Within the country, violence flared up once more, and this time the government responded by outlawing every black consciousness organization in the country. Though a period of relative quiet followed, the Soweto Revolt and the death of Steven Biko marked a great shift in the way that black youth were prepared to fight apartheid. Never again would the government be able to quash black political activism as thouroughly as it had managed to in the past.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

A Dry White Season opens with the unspectacular death of Ben Du Toit, a 53-year-old white Afrikaner man knocked down on the road by a hit-and-run driver—a death reported in only a few lines on the fourth page of the evening newspaper. As the narrator puts it, the report of Ben’s death is “barely enough for a shake of the head” (Brink, A Dry White Season, p. 9). The narrator, however, had been an old friend of Ben’s from college, and had only recently encountered him again, two weeks before the accident, when, harried and suspicious, Ben had called upon him and asked him to hold on to a pile of “papers and stuff” (Dry White Season, p. 13). On these papers he had “written it all down,” he had told the narrator; “they’ve taken it all from me. Nearly everything. Not much left. But they won’t get that. You hear me? If they get that there would have been no sense at all” (Dry White Season, p. 13). The narrator, confused and slightly irritated by Ben’s seemingly paranoid behavior, had agreed to this request while assuring Ben that everything was fine, that all he needed was a “good holiday” (Dry White Season, p. 14). Two weeks later Ben turns up dead and the narrator is left with a mess of notebooks and papers and photographs. From these materials the narrator—a middle-aged romance novelist ready to tackle a grander project—slowly, painfully reconstructs Ben’s story.

Ben Du Toit is an Afrikaner schoolteacher living comfortably in Johannesburg with his wife and teenage son; he has two grown daughters as well, who live close by. Ben’s life is relatively uneventful and his marriage without passion. He keeps to a steady schedule of exercise, work, and, for relaxation when he returns home in the late afternoon, carpentry. A generous man and devoted teacher, Ben inspires trust in his students and helps others when he can. He becomes especially involved in the life of Gordon Ngubene, the black man who cleans the school where Ben teaches. As a young man Gordon had showed scholarly promise, but his father’s death forced him to leave school and take work as a domestic servant. Now middle-aged, Gordon hopes to nurture the promise shown by his own son, Jonathan, an intelligent child whom Ben agrees to put through school as long as the boy’s grades remain high. Things go well at first, but, as he grows older, Jonathan becomes more and more sullen and angry, especially after being arrested and flogged by the police for a crime he did not commit. Once the Soweto Revolt begins, Jonathan only rarely returns home during the first month, and then one day disappears for good. Some children report that they saw Jonathan “in the crowd surrounded and stormed by the police” but the family is unable to find out any facts or specifics, neither from the police nor the hospitals (Dry White Season, p. 41). Gordon comes to Ben for help, and Ben hires an attorney to look into the matter, but during the subsequent investigation the authorities either deny having heard of Jonathan, or fail to respond at all. They assume this attitude despite personal accounts from a nurse and a cleaning man at the prison—the first reports seeing Jonathan in a hospital, his head swathed in bandages; the second claims to have cleaned blood from a prison cell in which Jonathan had been held. Finally the security police telephones the attorney with the news that Jonathan Ngubene died “of natural causes” the previous night (Dry White Season, p. 46).

Attempts to claim the body prove even more difficult, as Gordon and his wife, Emily, find themselves shuttled from one bureaucratic office to another, none of which can provide them with answers. At each dead end the couple returns to Ben, who, having utter faith in his country’s government and legal system, remains confident that justice will be done and Jonathan’s body properly buried. At last the attorney threatens to go public with the situation, and in this way finally elicits a response from the security police: Jonathan had never been imprisoned, but was shot during the riots, his body buried at that time. A request for the medical report elicits only a statement that the report is “unavailable” (Dry White Season, p. 47). For Ben the matter seems to end here; when Gordon, still determined to find out the fate of his son, appears at his door, Ben asks, “what good can it do [to keep looking], Gordon?” Gordon responds: “It can do nothing, Baas. But a man must know about his children…. I cannot stop before I know what happened to him and where they buried him. His body belongs to me. It’s my son’s body” (Dry White Season, p. 49).

Slowly Gordon begins to track down witnesses, many of them too frightened to sign statements. He pieces together the story of his son’s detention, torture, and death. At one point, after much coaxing, an ex-prisoner who had been detained along with Jonathan agrees to sign an affidavit stating, among other things, that both of them were kept naked throughout their detention; that he heard Jonathan being beaten from the next room; that one day they were taken outside the city and forced to crawl through barbed wire fences; and that another day they were interrogated together, standing “on blocks about a yard apart, with half-bricks tied to their sexual organs” (Dry White Season, p. 50). Gordon persuades the nurse as well to sign a statement, and, by this point, has begun to believe that he will be able, someday, to find the body of his son and bury it. The day after Gordon obtains the two signed affidavits, however, “he [is] taken away by the Special Branch [security police]. And with him, the affidavits [disappear] without a trace” (Dry White Season, p. 51).

It is at this point that Ben begins to suspect that things are not what they seem to be—or, at least, not as he has imagined them to be—in his country. Would Gordon, too, be tortured and killed in prison? Anxious to uncover the truth, however painful it might be, Ben slowly finds himself immersed in Gordon’s case and spends almost the entire remainder of the novel going through the same motions, and running up against the same obstacles, as Gordon had before his own detention—and with nearly the same results. Ben visits the police, works continually with a lawyer, visits Gordon’s family in Soweto, and spends a great deal of time writing letters and shuffling between various bureaucratic offices—most of this with a black cab driver named Stanley, who describes himself at one point as old-fashioned enough to believe that blacks and whites can fight for change together. Just as in Jonathan’s case, the police refuse to be forthcoming, and all the while they deny, even in the face of clear evidence, that Gordon is being tortured and abused, or even that anything is amiss. The injustice of what happened to Jonathan and what is happening to Gordon begins to haunt Ben until he feels he has no choice but to pursue this case until the end. His Afrikaner friends, colleagues, and family do not agree, however, and numerous tensions begin to disrupt Ben’s life. His wife, Susan, is especially intolerant of Ben’s activity, even more so when this activity begins to threaten the family’s safety. Police show up at the house with some regularity—to question the Du Toits, to search the house, and ultimately to threaten them. In this process the marriage dissolves.

Ben thinks of Gordon continually, and one night cannot shake the image of the broken teeth Gordon’s wife has found in one of Gordon’s pockets, in the clothing the police finally released to her at her request:

[A]fter the light had been turned out he couldn’t sleep, however exhausted he felt. He was remembering too much. The dirty bundle in the newspaper they’d brought him. The stained trousers. The broken teeth. It made him nauseous. He moved into another position but every time he closed his eyes the images returned…. Dark and soundless the night lay around him, limitless, endless; the night with


The title A Dry White Season comes from the Mangone Wally Serote poem that is used as the book’s epigraph:

it is a dry white season
dark leaves don’t last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they dive down gently headed for the earth
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother,
only the trees know the pain as they still stand erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire,
indeed, it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass.

(Dry White Season, epigraph)

Like Serote’s poem, Brink’s book uses the image of the dry white season to refer metaphorically to apartheid and the conditions created by it. In the book the image is rooted in a specific event. When the novel’s protagonist, Ben du Toit, was nine or ten years old, the Great Drought of 1933 forced his father to trek with all of the sheep from their farm to another district in the Free State, where, it was rumored, some grazing ground still remained. Ben and his father made the journey alone, but before they were able to reach their destination the drought closed in on them, forcing them to slaughter the starving lambs and sheep, and the ewes with no milk left. As Ben tells it, “in the end even the shrubs disappear … and day after day there’s the sun burning away whatever remains” (Dry White Season, p. 30).

At the moment when Ben comes fully into awareness of what apartheid means for most of his country’s population, and when he finds that something has changed irrevocably for him because of this awareness, he says:

The single memory that has been with me all day … is [of] that distant summer when Pa and I were left with the sheep. The drought that took everything from us, leaving us alone and scorched among the white skeletons.

What happened before that drought has never been particularly vivid or significant to me: that was where I first discovered myself and the world. And it seems to me I’m finding myself on the edge of yet another dry white season, perhaps worse than the one I knew as a child.

What now?

(Dry White Season, p. 163)

all its multitudes of rooms, some dark, some dusky, some blindingly light, with men standing astride on bricks, weights tied to their balls.

(Dry White Season, p. 75)

Gordon eventually dies in prison. An inquest is held, and despite all evidence to the contrary, his death is ruled to have been suicide. Throughout the course of Ben’s efforts, possible witnesses are detained or deported, shots are fired into Ben’s living room, the police become more and more of a hostile presence in his life, and almost everyone he knows turns against him. By the end of his life, he is able to find solace only with the black cab driver Stanley, and with Melanie, a young British South African journalist also dedicated to the plight of nonwhite South Africa. Ben and Melanie fall in love, but after Melanie visits England she is denied entrance back into South Africa.

The last portion of the novel documents the crumbling of Ben’s world. In one of the last days of his life, Ben finds that his own daughter has betrayed him by revealing the location of the papers he has kept to document the entire affair. Before handing them to the narrator, Ben moves the papers to a new location. A few days later his home is burglarized and the former hiding spot methodically ripped apart.

The novel ends with an epilogue by the narrator, who has taken it upon himself to assemble Ben’s detailed but scattered notes, documents, and letters, and to tell the story. The narrator recounts again his last meeting with Ben, Ben’s paranoid state, and his insistence that the narrator take his writings so that the story will not die with him. He speculates on Ben’s last hours, the hours after Ben’s discovery of the burglary and before the “accident” in which he is killed. And finally, having put the entire story together and presented it in the best, most truthful way he could, the narrator asks:

why do I go ahead by writing it all down here? … Prodded, possibly, by some dull, guilty feeling of responsibility towards something Ben might have believed in: something man is capable of being but which he isn’t very often allowed to be?

I don’t know.

Perhaps all one can really hope for, all I am entitled to, is no more than this: to write it down. To report what I know. So that it will not be possible for any man ever to say again: I know nothing about it.

(Dry White Season, p. 316)

Afrikaans literature and white activism in South Africa

The problem of how to contribute to the anti-apartheid struggle vexed politically committed white South Africans, especially after the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s, which disdained any political activity of white “do-gooders” (Biko in Ranuga, p. 93). As Ben du Toit realizes after being attacked by a group of black youths on the streets of Soweto in A Dry White Season:

Whether I like it or not … I am white. This is the small, final, terrifying truth of my broken world. I am white. And because I’m white I am born into a state of privilege. Even if I fight the system that has reduced us to this I remain white, and favoured by the very circumstances I abhor…. [Yet] what can I do but what I have done? I cannot choose not to intervene: that would be a denial and a mockery not only of everything I believe in, but of the hope that compassion may survive among men.

(Dry White Season, p. 304)

Like Ben du Toit, Afrikaner activists were in especially difficult positions, often disdained on all sides of the struggle. Even as the policies of apartheid became less and less attractive for economic reasons in the 1970s, apartheid was still widely seen as aligned with the will of the Afrikaner people, and prominent anti-apartheid activists, such as Bram Fischer, were disowned by Afrikaners the way that Ben is in the novel. In the novel, Ben du Toit is eventually ostracized by every Afrikaner he knows, finding solace only among his black and his white British friends.

For Afrikaner writers the problem was just as acute. Brink, an anti-apartheid white Afrikaner writer, stands out as one of the few internationally famous South African writers who is not only Afrikaner, but who also writes regularly in Afrikaans for an obviously Afrikaner audience. Like many of Brink’s other books, A Dry White Season was written in two languages. As Brink explains,

I write regularly in both Afrikaans and English, usually preparing a first draft in Afrikaans, followed by a complete rewriting of the novel in English, and a final translation back into Afrikaans. I regard this laborious process as an essential part of exploring the material, using English as an aid to see more clearly and to evaluate more objectively.

(Brink in Ross, p. 55)

Brink’s habit of translating each text into English was prompted by the banning in South Africa of his first politically committed novel, Kennis van die aand—the first Afrikaans novel ever to be banned in the country. To write in English was necessary in order to have an audience at all. While several Afrikaner writers prefer to write only in English—J. M. Coetzee (see Waiting for the Barbarians , also covered in African Literature and Its Times) for instance, finds Afrikaans “frankly dull” (Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 48)—Brink sees Afrikaans as a language rich and full of possibility:

[T]here is a certain virility, a certain earthy, youthful quality about Afrikaans because it is such a young language, and because, although derived from an old European language like Dutch, it has found completely new roots in Africa and become totally Africanized in the process. One writer said … that Afrikaans at this stage seems to resemble the English language in the time of Shakespeare. It is not very firmly and finally organized yet. One can do almost anything with it. If you haven’t got a word for something you want to express, you simply make a word or pluck a word from another language and shape it to fit yours.

(Brink in Ross, p. 104)

Afrikaans developed in the late 1800s and was first presented as a literary language in 1876, when a small Afrikaner nationalist group, the Association of True Afrikaners, turned out the newspaper Die Afrikaanse Patriot. In the following years many other Afrikaans texts—almost all of them fervently nationalist in sentiment—would appear, including alternative, revisionist histories told from the Afrikaner perspective. This early literature tended to glorify the Afrikaners and to commemorate the bravery and suffering of these “chosen” people, who had first settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century. In these years the existence of the Afrikaner people as a unified and distinct group was very much at risk, as the ruling power of the time, the British empire, sought to establish complete dominance over the region it had partially occupied since the late eighteenth century. When the British won the Boer War (1899-1902), after destroying about 30,000 Afrikaner farmsteads and placing thousands of Afrikaners in concentration camps, the Afrikaner people seemed “destined for decline and oblivion” (Meredith, p. 11). (Also called the South African War, the Boer War—so named by the British—erupted because the British wanted to reestablish dominance over the two independence-minded republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two republics were joined with the Cape Colony and Natal to form the Union of South Africa in 1910.)

Resilient under British attempts to quash them, the Afrikaners rallied around the cause of ethnic unity. Their development of a unique, specifically Afrikaner language and literature coincided with the birth of Afrikaner nationalism, with much of the developing literature aligning itself fiercely with the nationalist cause. This ethnic fervor culminated in the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948. Throughout these struggles Afrikaans literature continued to stress nationalist themes, and also began looking back nostalgically at the farm life that Afrikaners had traditionally led in South Africa; this emphasis on “the land” served to strengthen the idea that the soil of South Africa was somehow divinely connected to the Afrikaners. Where did this leave the blacks who inhabited the region before the arrival of the Afrikaners? As J. M. Coetzee points out, “this proprietorial attitude has made of the black man a temporary sojourner, a displaced person, not only in the white man’s laws but in the white man’s imaginary life” (Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 42). Playing its part in the development of this attitude, Afrikaans literature was crucial to the nationalist cause that was realized in the 42-year system of apartheid in South Africa.

Only in the 1960s did a young group of Afrikaner writers, “the Sestigers,” challenge the models on which the whole of early Afrikaans literature was based. Influenced by modern European literature, writers like André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Jan Rabie, and others dramatically renewed Afrikaans literature by “destroying all the existing taboos pertaining to sex, ethics, religion, and politics governing [it]” (Brink in Ross, p. 54). Despite the rebelliousness and daring of these writers, however, “they could not distance themselves from the white, oppressive, bourgeois culture” (Coetzee, p. 346). Not until the next two decades, during which A Dry White Season was written, did a small group of Afrikaner writers break away from white burgeois culture and create, for the first time, a politically motivated and revolutionary Afrikaans literature. Many of the texts produced by these writers elicited powerful responses in their readers: seeming to have betrayed their own culture, these writers were often seen as either traitors or as revolutionaries; from another perspective they appeared to be complicit, no matter their views, with a system that granted them enormous and disparate privilege. As Brink himself points out, “through history, culture and the colour of his skin [the Afrikaner writer] is linked, like it or not, to the power Establishment” (Brink in Gallagher, p. 43). Another poet admits that “the (white) Afrikaans writers of today … have to live with the cultural feeling of guilt, that the language in which they write is not ’innocent of the horrors’ of apartheid” (Small in Gallagher, p. 43).

Sources and literary context

A Dry White Season was one of many texts written in the wake of the Soweto Revolt, the unprecedented, widespread, and extremely violent rioting that shook South Africa in 1976. Writers were quick to respond to the devastation, and to the undeniable fact that the country had entered into a state of crisis. As the epigraph (from Antonio Gramsci) of Nadine Gordimer’s 1978 novel, July’s People, reads, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born….” (Gramsci in Coetzee, p. 356).

Brink’s idea for the novel was more specifically triggered by “a detainee who had allegedly hung himself near King William’s Town—Mohapi. The Mduli case in Durban also contributed to it, but it was mainly the Mohapi one which triggered it” (Brink in Jolly, pp. 21-22). When the famous and charismatic black leader Steven Biko died mysteriously in detention in 1977, Brink stopped working on the novel for a year, but eventually he “realised that it was also a matter of making sure the people knew about it, and were forced never to allow themselves to forget it” (Brink in Jolly, p. 23).


A Dry White Season was initially banned by South African censors when it came out in 1979. By the end of that year the ban had been lifted, along with the ban on Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter (also covered in African Literature and Its Times). Brink points out the apparent liberalization of the censorship system at this time, but also criticizes the fact that “the books which were unbanned were books very obviously chosen from the works of authors with some kind of international reputation, and they were all books by white authors” (Brink in Ross, p. 56). Regardless, the novel had great international success and in 1980 won both the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize and the Prix Medicis Étranger, France’s most prestigious prize for fiction in translation. In 1989 an American film version of Brink’s novel was released.

—Carolyn Turgeon

For More Information

Brink, André. A Dry White Season. New York: William Morrow, 1980.

Cawthra, Gavin. Policing South Africa: The SAP and the Transition from Apartheid. London: Zed Press, 1993.

Coetzee, Ampie. “Literature and Crisis: One Hundred Years of Afrikaans Literature and Afrikaner Nationalism.” In Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture. Ed. Martin Trump. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990.

Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Harsch, Ernest. South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt. New York: Monad Press, 1980.

Jolly, Rosemary Jane. Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.

Le May, G. H. L. The Afrikaners: An Historical Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Mandy, Nigel. A City Divided: Johannesburg and Soweto. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

Meredith, Martin. In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Period. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Ranuga, Thomas K. The New South Africa and the Socialist Vision: Positions and Perspectives Toward a Post-Apartheid Society. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996.

Ross, Jean W. “Andre Philippus Brink.” In Contemporary Authors. Vol. 104. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

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